Brief thoughts on Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (vol 1)

Reformed Dogmatics

You may recall that my big reading project (aside from school) is to reengaging with time-tested works of theology. The first work I chose was Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, of which, after five weeks, I’ve made it through the first volume. (You can see my reading plan here.) Reformed Dogmatics is a fairly massive undertaking, and at my current (fairly aggressive) pace, I should be completing it around the end of May, 2015.

Today, I wanted to share a few of the things I most appreciated in the first volume—and truth be told, narrowing it down was no easy task. I rarely went more than a few paragraphs without highlighting something that was fascinating to me, or finding a quote I needed to interact with, or something that challenged my assumptions (even if simply in his approach to those whose ideas he was challenging). Here are three items in particular that stick out:

1. The background really does matter. Believe it or not, one of the most beneficial parts of the first volume was the editor’s introduction. There, readers are treated to not just an overview of the key points of the book, but a look into the climate that made Bavinck… well, Bavinck. The influence of Abraham Kuyper, the historical backdrop of the rise of 19th century liberalism… all of this is foundational for a fair reading of Reformed Dogmatics.

2. The philosophical discussions are fascinating. This, for me, was perhaps the most enjoyable part of volume one. As Bavinck delved into the history of dogmatics and how others have attempted to articulate the Christian faith—including his very generous assessments of Schleiermacher, Kant, and others—but also how he recognizes the place of philosophy in regard to the development of theology:

Still, theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism, give priority to the philosophy of Plato or of Kant, or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful. (609)

This is so helpful to keep in mind, especially when reading frequent accusations of forcing Greek philosophy onto the Scriptures by post-evangelicals. Theology is not subject to philosophy—philosophy, when viewed rightly, is subject to theology. When we get this confused, the results are disastrous, for it is how we risk losing our grip on the gospel.

3. New problems aren’t that new. The final thing that’s helpful in reading the book is the reminder that, once again, the challenges we face in the church are not new. Heresy doesn’t change, it only gets a cooler haircut.

Thus, the temptations toward mere pietism, to outward morality without inward transformation, to the allegorizing and intellectualizing1 of the Christian faith, even accusations of circular reasoning have long been present. And just as these issues have long been present, so to have their responses.

Bavinck’s response to accusations of circular reasoning regarding the belief in Scripture as the Word of God is particularly helpful. The Spirit witnesses to the divine marks imprinted upon Scripture’s content. He also witnesses directly and indirectly through the Church’s ongoing existence and though the church’s united historical confession of Scripture. And finally through the internal witness within the heart of the believer. And yet, what Bavinck reminds us is that accusations against the testimony of the Holy Spirit are invalid because his testimony is not the ground, but the means of faith:

The ground of faith is, and can only be, Scripture, or rather, the authority of God, which comes upon the believer materially in the content as well as formally in the witness of Scripture. Hence the ground of faith is identical with its content and cannot, as Herrmann believes, be detached from it. Scripture as the word of God is simultaneously the material and the formal object of faith. But the testimony of the Holy Spirit is “the efficient cause,” “the principle by which,” of faith. We believe Scripture, not because of, but by means of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit relate to each other as objective truth and subjective assurance, as the first principles and their self-evidence, as the light and the human eye. Once it is has been recognized in its divinity, Scripture is incontrovertibly certain to the faith of the believing community, so that it is both the principle and the norm of faith and life. (597-598)

So far, while it’s been heady (and at times confusing), Reformed Dogmatics has been an absolute joy to read. There is no shortage of material to consider in its pages, whether we agree with everything entirely or not (and let’s be honest, if we agreed entirely with it, we probably aren’t reading carefully enough). If you haven’t started reading this book (or rather, series of books), I’d encourage you to join me on this journey reading time-tested theology. Grab the reading plan, get yourself a copy of Reformed Dogmatics, and get started today.

Get serious about your studies (recap)

Get-Serious-About-Your-Studies

Studying the Bible is an essential for the Christian. Yet it seems far many of us seem to take it for granted, myself included. If we study the Bible at all, it’s as a chore—”I have to do this”—instead of a privilege—”I get to do this!”

A couple weeks back I shared a series called “get serious about your studies,” looking at a number of practical tools intended to help us study the Scriptures. Over four posts, we covered:

This kind of series is really fun for me to write, not just because it gives me a chance to point you to helpful tools, but because it gives me a chance to remind myself of the tools I have in my own toolkit. It is so easy to become lackadaisical, to lose focus… and it’s for this very reason you and I need to be diligent to study the Word, to invest ourselves in it and be mastered by it as we seek to grow in our understanding of God through the Scriptures.

If you’ve not already done so, I’d encourage you to read these for yourself—and, if you think I’ve missed anything, please let me know!

Get Serious About Your Studies: Choosing Your Systematic Theology

Outside of a great study Bible, one of the most important study tools in a Christian’s library is a good systematic theology.

What is a Systematic Theology?

The term “systematic theology” is a scary one for a lot of people. It sounds cold and mechanical. But a good systematic theology can help inspire a greater love for the Bible and the God who inspired its writing.

Systematic theology, in broad strokes, seeks to compile everything that the Bible says about a particular doctrine (such as the Trinity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, the Attributes of God, Creation, etc.) into an orderly and rational form. More simply, “systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given subject.”1

While some are uncomfortable with the idea of systematic theology, thinking of it as being a divergence from biblical theology (a critique usually made by folks who are opposed to doctrinal certainty of any sort), a good systematic theology seeks to avoid importing man-made ideas and go no further than Scripture itself. While it doesn’t ignore the historical development of doctrine or philosophical ideas surrounding them, these fields lack the authority of Scripture.

Why do I need one?

The primary reason to have a systematic theology in your reference library is so that you can gain a better understanding of and appreciation for Christian theology. We are commanded to love the Lord with all of our minds, as well as our hearts, souls and strength, and therefore the study of theology—of the attributes of God as found in Scripture, of penal substitutionary atonement, of sin, of creation and a host of other subjects—should lead us not simply to gain knowledge, but lead us to praise God for who He is.

How do I use it?

As with all things, Systematic theologies should be studied prayerfully and carefully. Keep your Bible handy, check references and make sure that what is there aligns with what Scripture clearly says. Further to that, a systematic theology is not a weapon (although some are big enough that you could defend your home with them). Studying and referencing a systematic theology is not to be an exercise in showing off intellectual prowess. If the knowledge lies merely in your head, but doesn’t move to your heart, then it’s time wasted.

Which one should I get?

There are a couple that I enjoy a great deal and am referencing with greater frequency. They are Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.

I love Grudem’s Systematic Theology because it’s easy to understand, provides thoughtful explanations, tons of notes and personal application questions (as every good book should). This is, in large part, because it’s intended to be read by students (although teachers, pastors and professors will gain much from it).

I love Calvin’s Institutes in part because of its historic value. Calvin was one of the key figures in the Protestant Reformation and it’s powerful to see how influential this masterpiece of theology has become. It’s extremely pastoral, and it is steeped in Scripture—the key reasons to purchase any book. What shines through most clearly in the Institutes is Calvin’s love for Christ, love for Scripture and love for people.

At the end of the day though, it’s up to you. There are several fantastic Systematics available; for what it’s worth though, I suspect you’ll be hard pressed to find ones better than these (at least until J.I. Packer releases one :)).

1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 21 (Zondervan, 1994)